England (5) 36
Tries: Cole, Care, Daly, Nowell 2, Te'o; Conversions: Farrell 3;
Italy (10) 15
Tries: Venditti, Campagnaro; Conversion: Allan; Drop goal: Allan
Following a week during which the fire of debate over possible promotion and relegation in the Six Nations was ferociously stoked by archaic comments made by the tournament's chief executive, Italy produced the perfect supporting argument to retaining the current structure by running England extraordinarily close at Twickenham. The Azzuri may have crashed to their 11th straight championship defeat and were unable to capitalise on England's worst display under Eddie Jones, but they will have galvanised those among rugby's administrators who want the likes of Georgia, Romania and Germany sidelined from the continent's premier competition.
Dublin-based John Feehan obnoxiously stated the tournament had no duty to the nations outside of the inner circle of European rugby; in other words the event is a closed shop. While his views completely contradict any ambition of growing the game, he will have been glowing from his ivory tower in the Irish capital as Italy unnerved England at the breakdown and if not for Tommaso Allan's inaccuracy with the boot could potentially have caused the greatest shock in the tournament's 107-year history, from 50/1 outsiders.
The body of evidence supporting a two-tier system in the Six Nations does continue to build, almost as rapidly as the number of close shaves survived by Jones' England during the second year of his tenure. Several records are in their midst after their 17th straight victory yet there remains plenty of work to do despite having returned to the summit of the table with as flattering a win as any they will claim before the next Rugby World Cup. Therein lies half the issue facing the organisers, who must look at the current depth after an awful England performance for 60 minutes was not properly punished.
The chasm between the England display and the defining characteristics of the mid-week visitors to their Bagshot training base - Chelsea football manager Antonio Conte and England's all-time leading run scorer Alastair Cook - could not have been greater. The hosts possessed none of the blood and thunder of the Premier League leaders or the dogged determination which defines the ex-Test skipper as Jones' unwillingness to label his team as world class appeared entirely justified.
Perhaps frustratingly for Feehan and supporters of the current structure, Italy produced a spirited resistance in the first half, a showing which left a hopeful crowd spewing over their Sunday roast. England appeared to be nursing an almighty hangover from their 16 straight wins and were sleepy from the outset, Nathan Hughes and Dan Cole the guilty parties during the opening exchanges.
Owen Farrell on his 50th cap was at the epicentre of the ineptitude; his kicking out of hand and from the floor was hopeless, and attempts to make amends hapless. But it was at the breakdown where England were most fallible, with Italy's unwillingness to engage at the point of the tackle - compromising the interpretation of the offside law - bamboozling the home side.
That James Haskell was heard asking referee Romain Poite how to combat Italy's interpretation of the laws, said plenty about the desperation which underlined the England display. "I'm the referee, not a coach," the Frenchman quipped in an early contender for quote of the year. Little changed too after Cole's fourth international try broke the deadlock, as the forward emerged from a mass of bodies in a disjointed attempt from England to show their muscle from a catch and drive.
The defining moment of the half however was the last; Allan's penalty rebounded off the post and as England were considering their half-time espresso, Giovanbattista Venditti collected the ball and stormed over to give Italy a 10-5 half-time lead. The shock was on.
O'Shea's tactics had brilliantly nullified the defending champions but naturally upon the resumption England stormed back with a second half revival which has been the defining feature of their campaign. Only 199 seconds had passed when Care beat five tackles to score in the corner and much in the same way the Italy defence was breached, the floodgates appeared to have been opened when Elliot Daly repeated the feat with his second England try.
The bookmakers were left concerned again as Italy went within two points when Michele Campagnaro - the embodiment the visitors' recent history in the competition - broke three England tackles and silenced Twickenham. Allan's failure to take advantage - with 11 points coming and going - continued to let England off the hook, and though Farrell problems remained with the boot Italy were punished decisively as Jack Nowell twice went over either side of Ben Te'o's effort in the corner to confirm a win - and somewhat embarrassingly a bonus point - which had been drawn like blood from a stone.
But while Italy will take huge encouragement from running England remarkably close, it is impossible to comprehend how successive grand slams for the first time since 1925 can be claimed against Scotland and Ireland over the next three weeks. New Zealand's record of 18 straight wins is tantalisingly close, yet without a dramatic improvement against the best two other sides in the Six Nations Jones' side will suffer the ignominy of running the All Blacks close but failing, like many have, to eclipse them.